The phrase “New Evangelization” is frequently thrown around today to describe a variety of programs, teachings, initiatives, and projects – so much so that sometimes we forget that the New Evangelization is at its core, in the words of Donald Cardinal Wuerl, “a mode of thinking, seeing and acting… a lens through which we see the opportunities to proclaim the Gospel anew.”
To help combat the “programmatization” of the New Evangelization it may be helpful to think in terms of a series of concentric circles, each with its own needs and requiring its own approach:
At the center of the circle is Jesus Christ, the ultimate end of the New Evangelization. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” That person is Jesus. The goal of evangelization and catechesis is to help individuals to know him – not just in an intellectual way, but through our lived experience in relationship to him.
The next circle from the middle consists of intentional disciples – those who have oriented their lives towards Jesus Christ and follow him in a way radically at odds with the ways of the world. It is important to note that intentional discipleship is more than just showing up for Sunday Mass. True discipleship flows into all aspects of our lives. Those who have reached this circle seek to emulate Jesus in all things.
The next circle out is seekers. These individuals are looking for more – and may be involved and present in our parishes – but they have yet to fully turn over their lives to Jesus. They are pursuing, to various degrees, a spiritual life and may well be on their way to true discipleship.
The “marginals” are those family members and friends that we may see at Christmas, Easter, or funerals, but who do not participate in the faith regularly. Many of them still have a personal prayer life and would bristle at being called “inactive” or “non-practicing.” However their religious activities do not include the wider Christian community, even if they continue to identify as Catholic.
Moving outwards we next encounter the “nones,” a rapidly growing group that identifies with no religious tradition. (They get their name because they mark “none” when asked about their preferred faith tradition on surveys.) Members of this group may or may not be hostile to religious faith, but they have no interest in organized religion, finding it to be irrelevant to their needs.
Finally, in the circle furthest from the center, is the culture. The Church’s teaching on the New Evangelization is clear that, in addition to reaching out to individuals in their communities, Christians are also called to evangelize the cultures in which they find themselves. This is accomplished through various outreach and service programs including Catholic schools and hospitals, and initiatives of the bishops such as Catholic Relief Services and advocacy for more just laws in the secular sphere.
The goal of the New Evangelization is to help people to come to know Jesus Christ – in effect, to help people to move from the outer circles to the center where we find, ultimately, union with Christ. What this looks like will depend on which “circle” we are dealing with. In other words, a one-size-fits-all approach will not meet the varied attitudes, experiences, and needs we will encounter in the people we meet. It is the work of our dioceses, parishes, and families to ensure that all people hear the Gospel and are invited to take that first step – no matter how small – towards Christ.
This post was originally written for the USCCB’s Diocesan Educational and Catechetical Leadership Institute.